Great American Duels #1

Challenger:  Aaron Burr-  Vice President of the United States

Challenged:  Alexander Hamilton-  Former Secretary of the Treasury

The Offense:   Burr had been dropped from Thomas Jefferson’s ticket in 1804 and was seeking the Governorship in New York.  Alexander Hamilton’s opinion of Burr (“a most dangerous man not to be trusted with the reins of government”)  had been made public is several private letters that were published in Albany newspapers.  The concerted efforts of Hamilton and his allies cost Burr the election.   Burr protested, “political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the necessity of a rigid adherence to the laws of honor and the rules of decorum.”  Hamilton accepted Burr’s challenge. 

A sketch of America’s most famous duel

Background:  The Burr-Hamilton feud can be traced to 1791, when Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law in a New York Senate race.  In 1800, Hamilton used his influence in the House of Representatives to give the contested Presidential election to Thomas Jefferson over Burr.  Hamilton considered Burr an interloper whose ambition made him unfit for honorable public service.  Burr’s political career was clearly impeded by the efforts of Hamilton.  It seemed a duel was inevitable, yet historians debate the motivations of Hamilton and Burr.  Was Burr simply a murderer?  Did Hamilton have  a death wish?

The Burr-Hamilton pistols

 The Field of Honor:  July 11, 1804–  The duelists were rowed across the Hudson river to the heights of Weehawken, New Jersey.  Most historians now agree that Hamilton did not plan on firing at Burr.  Burr’s later statements indicate he had every intention of killing Hamilton.  The Seconds were instructed to turn away from the dueling ground, but the participants agree that Hamilton’s shot crashed into the tree branches above Burr’s head.  Burr took aim and struck Hamilton in the torso slashing his internal organs and lodging in his vertebrae.  Burr briefly showed concern, but his entourage rushed him back to Manhattan.  Hamilton died a day later.  Burr was never convicted of murder, though dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey. 

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